The Collection:
John C. Campbell Folk School

John C. Campbell Folk School logo

Institution Overview
At the turn of the century, the Southern Appalachian region was viewed as a fertile field for educational and social missions. Under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation, John C. Campbell and his wife Olive Dame Campbell undertook a fact-finding survey of social conditions in the mountains in 1908-1909. While John interviewed farmers about their agricultural practices, Olive collected Appalachian ballads and studied handicrafts of the mountain people. Both were hopeful that quality of life could be improved by education and, in turn, wanted to preserve and share with the rest of the world the crafts, techniques, and tools mountain people used in everyday life. The Campbells talked of establishing a school in the rural southern United States as an alternative to higher education facilities that drew young people away from family farms.

After John died in 1919, Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler traveled to Europe and studied folk schools in Denmark, Sweden, and other countries. They returned to the U.S. full of purposeful energy and a determination to start such a school in Appalachia. In 1925, the folk school began its work. Instruction at the folk school has always been noncompetitive; there are no credits and no grades. Today, the folk school offers a unique combination of rich history, beautiful mountain surroundings, and an atmosphere of living and learning together. The John C. Campbell Folk School provides experiences in noncompetitive learning and aim to enliven community life. Located in Brasstown, North Carolina, the folk school offers year-round week long and weekend classes for adults in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography and writing.

In addition to its core mission of providing classes, the John C. Campbell Folk School offers numerous opportunities for activities and social interactions with the local community through concert series, community dances, nature trails, a craft shop, and a history center. Information on current classes, social offerings, and special events can be found on the John C. Campbell Folk School website,

Collections Overview
John C. Campbell Folk School collection contains over 4,000 artifacts, craft objects, letters, brochures, documents, audio files, and photographs representing its history. Important to the project are photographs that tell the story of the school’s early history and documents and school brochures that explain its philosophy during its early development. Significant to the Craft Revival project is the school’s collection of 2,000 woodcarvings made by Brasstown carvers.

The History Center, located on the central campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School, features exhibitions and collections documenting the school’s history and its role in Appalachian history. In addition, the History Center houses the Fain Archives that includes numerous archival and artifact collections and is staffed by a folklorist and archivist. Collections include school records, historical books and periodicals, music recordings, oral histories, historic film footage, photographs, and artifacts. History Center exhibits are open to the public; the collections in the Fain Archives are available by appointment. Contact the school at 1-800-FOLKSCH for an appointment.

Materials from the Fain Archives that document the school’s history and its role in the revival of craft production in the southern Appalachians have been digitized and included in the Craft Revival project database. John C. Campbell Folk School records include such as newsletters, brochures, pledge cards, and correspondence. Other collections within the Fain Archives include the Doris Ulmann photograph collection; selections sound recording collections including oral histories; and numerous craft items such as handmade musical instruments and woodcarvings made by the Brasstown Carvers. The collections from which these materials were selected are further described here.

John C. Campbell Folk School Records. Newsletters and Reports, 1925-1954.
The newsletters provide personal accounts of activities at the school, such as new buildings, classes, students, instructors, farm activity, and community events. They also include fund-raising requests and reports.
[See items selected from this collection]

John C. Campbell Folk School Records. Brochures, Publicity, and Publications, 1925-1954.
This series includes promotional materials published by the Folk School for special classes or events. It also includes newspaper clippings about the Folk School.
[See items selected from this collection]

John C. Campbell Folk School Records. Pledge Cards, 1925.
The pledge cards represent the community-initiated commitment to support the birth of the school through collective labor, tools, money, land, and other gifts. There are approximately 120 pledge cards.
[See items selected from this collection]

John C. Campbell Folk School Records. Correspondence, 1925-1954.
This series contains three boxes of letters to and from school directors, staff, and instructors.
[See items selected from this collection]

Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection
From 1928-1934, Doris Ulmann, a photographer from New York, and Kentucky-born folklorist and musician John Jacob Niles, traveled through Appalachia taking pictures and recording various forms of vanishing mountain culture. Doris Ulmann took photographs for Allen Eaton’s Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands published in 1937. She and Niles considered the John C. Campbell Folk School their “home base” and Ulmann developed a cordial relationship with Olive Campbell, evidenced in correspondence between the two women. Pictures taken at the school and around the Brasstown area are from 1933 and 1934. Ulmann was drawn to marginal people. The collection includes photographs from various places, but largely the Brasstown area. Also included in the collection are five photographs taken by John Jacob Niles. The collection contains 214 photographs.
[See items selected from this collection]

Daisy Dame Photograph Album
Daisy Dame, eldest sister of Olive Dame Campbell, accompanied Campbell and Marguerite Butler on their trip to Scandinavia to study the folk school model. When the John C. Campbell Folk School was established in Brasstown, Daisy lived on the grounds for at least one year. She documented the area and the school with a photographic scrapbook complete with descriptive captions. The scrapbook is approximately 70 pages.
[See items selected from this collection]

Historical Photograph Collection
These photographs, taken from 1925 through 1950s, depict early events, scenery, classes, and people at the folk school. Some were taken by Marguerite Butler and Daisy Dame, who were recognized as prolific photographers. Many photographs have unknown creators. There are over 400 photographs in the Historical Photograph Collection.
[See items selected from this collection]

Artifact Collection. Brasstown Carvings, ca. 1930s-1950s.
The cottage industry of carving began gradually in the community around the folk school and gained recognition in the 1930s with the leadership of a newly hired craft instructor, Murrial Martin. Martin provided blocks of wood and instruction to carvers; the school sold their finished pieces. As a supplement to a cash-poor farm income, carving was of significant financial help to many community members. There are over 2,000 carvings in 48 boxes.
[See items selected from this collection]

Artifact Collection. Ironwork, ca. 1920s-present.
Blacksmithing was one of the earliest crafts at the folk school, although at the school’s inception, it was seen solely as necessary and functional. The ironwork collection includes early work by Oscar Cantrell, the school’s first blacksmith. Another notable smith who is represented is Francis Whitaker, known as the “Dean of American Blacksmithing.” Whitaker taught at the folk school from the 1970s-1990s and the school smithy is named for him. The collection includes 105 iron objects.
[See items selected from this collection]

Artifact Collection. Textiles and Natural Materials, ca. 1920s-present.
The textile and natural materials collection includes early weavings produced by students and instructors that were marketed through the school’s handicraft program. The collection contains weaving drafts dating from the late 1800s, weaving and embroidery pieces by Olive Campbell, various quilts, clothing, samplers, and Granny Donaldson’s widely recognized “cow blankets.” Also included in the collection are baskets, cornhusk dolls, vegetable dye recipe cards and samples, and “wood pretties.” The collection is housed in 12 textile boxes and shelving.
[See items selected from this collection]

Artifact Collection. Musical Instruments, ca. 1890s-present.
The musical instrument collection contains over 20 Appalachian instruments such as dulcimers, banjos, fiddles, guitars, and mandolins. Instruments are on display in the dining hall and History Center, as well as in the archive.
[See items selected from this collection]

Audio-Visual Recordings Collection
This collection includes recordings of regional Appalachian music and oral histories in the form of over 300 DAT tapes, 500 cassette tapes, 50 reel-to-reel tapes, 1000 vinyl records, and 100 videos and DVDs.
[See items selected from this collection]

Non-folk school publications include the periodical, Mountain Life and Work, published by the Conference for Southern Mountain Workers. Several early issues (1920s and 1930s) contain articles by folk school staff, like Mrs. Campbell.
[See items selected from this collection]

Vertical File
This series contains miscellaneous files and clippings on folk school people, events, and buildings.

The libraries include books from the historic general library of the folk school, which was the only area library accessible to many in the 1920s. Other collections within the library include books that belonged to folk school staff, including the Campbells and Bidstrups. Ownership of these books is indicated by signatures. There are over 1,600 books located in the Keith House Library and in the archive.